Organization Horsepower

Thinking Like a Motorcycle Racing Team

Category: Harrison Withers (page 1 of 6)

The Role of the Crew Chief – A Memorial

Organization Horsepower was written based on my experiences in life and business. One of those experiences was the time I spent as a crew member on race team. In the book, I tried to keep things simple by concentrating on how a race team functioned in relation to performance. How successful I was at that endeavor I will leave to you, the reader. However, today I feel a tinge of regret that I did not more fully explore the people who served with in those roles. In all cases, those people defined the roles they played on the team and they served in those roles because of who they are, not because it was the role we had to fill.

One of those people, is Bruce Blake, Crew Chief for the Greg Hutcheson Racing team.

The reason why I feel compelled to talk specifically about Bruce is because he passed away the morning of July 16th. Much of what I know about motorcycle racing at the professional level I learned from Bruce, and to cater to cliché, Bruce had forgotten more about racing than I will ever know. In this article, I will analyze the role that Bruce played in the content of the book and try my best to honor his contribution.

Before we look, at the role of Crew Chief, it’s helpful to understand the context of that role by understanding the overall structure or Organizational Design of the race team. The following excerpt is from chapter 8, “The Crew”:

Organizational Design of a Race Crew

Organizational design (OD) on a race team is purposeful and lean and is comprised of specialists who are well aware of their contribution to the cause. Much like in business, a smaller capital investment means that each crew member must play more, less-specialized roles. However, as capitalization grows, the race team can scale based on its strengths. The overall structure of a race team remains flat. Everyone has a job to do, everyone knows why it’s important, and everyone is accountable. Most race crews are made of up of these four identities: team owner, crew chief, team manager, and specialists.

Bruce was an Engineer by trade, a motorcyclist by passion. He approached motorcycle racing from the perspective he knew best, with precision and a scientific understanding of the interplay of the mechanics of the rider and machine.

Of the many stories Bruce had to tell, it was never clear to me how involved he was with racing before his son Justin Blake got involved with racing, first in motocross, and then adding road racing. Justin was the Bo Jackson of motorcycle racing, riding at the professional level in both motocross and road racing simultaneously. In addition to role as Father, this is where Bruce first assumed mantle of crew chief.

Subsequent to Justin’s racing career, Bruce ran a successful racing focused shop with particular specialty in suspension. However, being the crew chief in a family-based race team meant at one time or another he played all the roles on the team, some at the same time.

This juxtaposition makes me wonder how much of our traditional corporate organizational design is influenced by traditional western family roles. Regardless, Bruce had a unique set of life experiences, combined with a perspective that made him our ideal Crew Chief. Once again, the following excerpt is from chapter 8, “The Crew”:

Crew Chief

Like the rider, the crew chief fills several roles in the structure of the race team. Before the race, the crew chief is a trainer and a coach, making sure the crew can execute exactly as they need to come race day. The chief makes sure the crew has all the parts and tools they need to their jobs. The chief works with the rider during development, interpreting for the crew what the rider feels he needs from the machine. The chief also acts as an advisor for the rider by providing the data needed to increase performance.

On race day, the crew chief is the head coach, directing and coordinating the efforts of the crew and the rider to maximum performance. The crew chief is the business equivalent of the COO (Chief Operating Officer), responsible for the execution of all the organization’s core competencies.

When a rider and crew chief work well together, they tend to stay together, sometimes even switching teams together as a package deal. It speaks to the complex but symbiotic relationship that can develop between the visionary and the operational aspects of a high-performing team.

When it works, you tend to want to leave it alone. This type of symbiotic relationship is also often seen at the upper echelons of corporations, with really great entrepreneurial officers who bring trusted operations leadership with them from company to company.

Bruce was meticulous in in his planning, he had checklists for what tools needed to be on pit lane, and had a special tool box to get them there. He ran drills with us on who stood where and how not to get in each others way. He knew that if we knew exactly what we were supposed to do, he could concentrate on the rider, what the rider wanted from the machine, and what adjustments needed to made for changing conditions.

Greg Hutcheson, the rider, is also an engineer by trade, and the relationship they were able to forge was able to reach that symbiotic level. They shared a common lexicon, and common understanding of speed and performance, but in a way that they both continued to learn from one another.

As for me, I learned a couple different jobs on the team, learned a whole lot about the mechanics of motorcycles, and even got to spend a couple race weekends where I was the rider and Bruce was my crew chief of sorts. Perhaps more important, I learned what it took and what it meant to lead an organization’s operational aspects. A lesson that I will today, and will forever aspire to embody.

In Memory of Bruce D. Blake, 19??-2016

indy finish line


It seems that every month of the year has a theme these days.

In some ways this is a good thing, it creates focus on an issue that we cannot sustain over a greater period of time. Perhaps in that month we can move the bar just a little bit. If the theme carries through the next year, maybe you move the bar a little more, maybe it last a few weeks into the next month and so on.

On the other hand, the beard I started in November is still here in February.

Which brings us to the theme of this month, which I have heard from a few sources: Failure.

It’s talked about in business circles, it’s almost cliché.

Yet, very few business know how to do it, recognize it, or recover from it.

One of the reasons I wrote Organization Horsepower, was to give people non-business models or metaphors for performance issues. Of course there’s a whole chapter on failure.

Chapter 17: The Inevitable Crash

Just as there are a million different ways to win a motorcycle race, there are equally as many ways to lose. Business is no different. However, the more catastrophic the failure the more opportunity there is to learn. But we need to be ever mindful of the potential consequences of the risks we take.

There are only two kinds of motorcycle racers, those who have crashed and those who haven’t—yet.

Everyone crashes eventually.

Failure in this respect is not optional.

What is learned from those crashes will largely determine the resilience of the rider and team. No one has ever gotten significantly faster than everyone else without an epic failure of some sort.

This section was inspired by the notion that failure is not optional, it is not completely avoidable, but it can be very valuable as long as we don’t blow off the analysis of those failures. As with most analysis, we need data, but that data needs to be collected in such a way that we can make sense of it. We have to categorize it in a broad enough way that we focus the data we collect.

Low Sides, High Sides, and Off-Track Excursions

As advanced as motorcycles and riders have become, no one has invented a new way to crash nor have we eliminated any single type of crash. We are still crashing exactly the same way we were 100 years ago.

In an elemental sense, all crashes are caused by a loss of traction or the sudden and unmitigated application of traction; all other variations of the crash describe the conditions or severity of the crash.

Business isn’t finding new ways to fail either. Elementally failures in business can be distilled one way or another. Recently a colleague of mine at TiER1 Performance, Eric Lodor, attempted to categorize the types of failures a consulting business like ours can experience:

  • Project (missed deadline, malfunctioning team, over on hours….)
  • Financial (low margin, no margin or failure to maximize margin – failure to capture value)
  • Relationship (failed to establish, maximize or extend our relationships)
  • Account (lost the account, or did not maximize opportunity)
  • Technical (tools not working, huge support load)
  • Delivery (development successful, implementation was not)
  • Impact/Measurement (couldn’t prove ROI)
  • Adoption (built great stuff, nobody used it)
  • HR/Human Capital (wrong role, too many hours, lack of coaching/mentoring)
  • Innovation (missed an opportunity to promote, realize or advance innovation)

I suspect with some additional introspection, we could reduce this list even further, but it’s a good starting point. If we are then able to categorize the type of failure we can then further refine the type of data we want to analyze. Of course not all failures are created equal and some are more or less damaging/useful than others.

The most common of all motorcycle racing crashes is the “low side.” The low side occurs when traction is lost while turning and the side of the motorcycle that is lowest to the ground contacts first. In a low side the motorcycle appears to slide out from beneath the rider, and typically both the rider and bike will slide together on roughly equivalent trajectory for a distance largely dictated by the speed at which the incident occurred.

There is no such thing as a harmless crash, but if you had to choose one, it would be a low side. Low sides tell us physically what the limit is and the cause is almost always that we pushed too far over the line.

Of course with any search for causation, you run into limits. There is a point where it get hard to see the forest through the trees. A point of diminishing return.

Collisions and Racing Incidents

If you race long enough, you’re going to hit someone or someone is going to hit you, or maybe both. Collisions are rarely intentional but the net effect is a crash that will leave you struggling to identify exactly what to learn from the failure. Sometimes things are beyond the rider’s control at least until he’s good enough to remove himself from the potential risk.

In racing a collision is sometimes “written off” as a “racing incident,” a racer’s way of acknowledging that there is risk that increases when two riders are trying to occupy the same place on the track at the same time.

What’s needed is to find and acknowledge the point where the search for a cause exceeds the value of the information potentially gained. That’s not to say we bury our heads in sand, but there always new races and new opportunities to perform better.

I’d love to hear from you on what if anything I’ve shared here strikes a chord with you as you think about #FailFebruary. If you’d like to read more of the book it’s available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.

My New Gig – TiER1 Performance

I know a bunch of folks caught my new job title on LinkedIn week before last. I very much appreciate the well wishes and congratulations I received. In case you missed it, I am now a Senior Solutions Consultant at TiER1 Performance. The company is based out of Covington, KY. (Cincinnati), but I will be out of the Chicago office. This involves a relocation for my wife and I, and while I will greatly miss the Lake Michigan shores of my West Michigan location, Chicago is a vibrant city full of excitement and opportunity.

My new role is client facing, and I am really excited to get to know a whole new group of companies. In this position I will be concentrating on solution architecture and engagement management, and will be very hands-on. One of the advantage s of being with a bit larger of an organization, is fewer operational responsibilities allowing me to focus on what I enjoy more and do best.

At the risk of sounding a bit commercial, TiER1 has a cool planning and organization tool called xMap that I am really enjoying. It lets you drag and drop learning or communication events and/or assets into time based buckets so you can take a wide view the experiences you are building for various audiences. Individuals can use it for free at and there is an enterprise version available.

If you are in the Chicago area, give me an excuse to come visit you, I need to figure out where I’m going and it will be good practice.

chicago skyline

Thoughts on My Last Day at Media 1

Today (11/3/2014) is my last day at Media 1 and its related entity Xperiocity. Official notice was given a few weeks ago and I’ve spent the last few weeks making some personal notifications and working through some transition plans. The parting of ways was at my request, and has been completely amicable.

One of the many things that I have learned about myself over the last 11 years here at Media 1 is that I am very good at what I do. That may sound arrogant to some, but believe it or not, I have to beat down a wall of self-deprecation to write those words with confidence and without disclaimer.

One of my skills is being able to shift my perspective and derive clarity from a situation that has a lot of moving parts. The last few months, I’ve gained some clarity on my life and on my role at Media 1. I came to the conclusion that the strategy direction that Xperiocity represents is the best path forward for Media 1, and at the same time requires some skill sets that are perhaps better suited to others. My final strategic recommendation as the Lead Consultant at Media 1 is that they pursue the talent that can best engage in their new cause and direction. My advice to myself is to do the same.

Without disclosing specific work or specific clients, I am incredibly proud of what Media 1 has been able accomplish during my tenure. From continuing to evolve business process and practices, to ground breaking applications of learning technology, the sheer number of initiatives I have been involved with is staggering. The awards and accolades have similarly been humbling. However, none of those things would have been possible without Chris Willis the CEO, and an incredible cast of talent assembled in Grand Haven, MI.

The original team when I joined that consisted of Penny Maki, Robert Willis, Jenni Kossack (Nemes), Brad Pennington, James Barnes, Scott Byers, Thomas Johnson, and Omar Marty. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the majority of those people are still there today. I’ve also had the opportunity to work long term with some incredible talents including L. Micheal Wykes, John Chapin, Kate Prior, Jill Bornemeier, Ben Froese, Jeff Gross, David Fewless, Josh Rourhurst, Steve Barber, Bill Jones, William Hicks, Audra Troccko, AliciaMarie Belchak, Paul Shope, Laura Sample, Aaron Schaut, Jordan McClure, Deb Woudenberg, William Mosqueda, Shanna Reynolds, Erika Jenson, and Sandy Balkema. There have also been an incredible cast or shorter term employees and contractors not mentioned by name with apologies. To some of these people I am a trusted advocate and friend, for other perhaps not as much. It’s never easy to run operations in a small enterprise. The greatest compliment I can give is that I learned from each and every one of you, and you are all part of the fabric that is the Media 1 I will always be thankful I was a part of.

Undoubtedly, many of you are wondering what is next for me, for the time being, I can tell you that I have a plan and to stay tuned. For the purposes of this post, I would like to end by focusing on gratitude for the 11 years of great experiences and opportunities at Media 1.

Organization Horsepower Author Movie

Book Preview on SlideShare

I put up this teaser on SlideShare, if you’d like to learn a little more about the book:

Integration, Experience, and Discovery

A few years ago I became aware of a guy in Portland Oregon, named Tor Clausen who owns a company called Musical Furnishings (www.musical It seems this gentleman had the brilliant idea that furniture, while remaining functional as furniture, could also serve as entertainment and as a tool for creativity. He designed a series of tables, benches and chests that also can be used as percussion instruments. This takes the form of various drums or xylophone type instruments.

I’ve been a musician most of my life, which is almost embarrassing to claim since my playing ability nowhere matches the amount of time I have spent practicing or just fooling around for the pure joy of it. But the one thing that I have never been any good at all is percussion. Despite having reasonable time while playing other instruments, I can’t carry a beat even if it has a handle. I have little creativity when it comes to hearing drum beats and clapping can sometimes even be a challenge.

Regardless of my obvious and self-admitted lack of talent in all things percussion, I could never get the concept of a musical table out of my head. Just the idea of having a musical experience integrated into something as common as a coffee table, is just so appealing to me. The context that it presents is so attractive that I couldn’t imagine putting down my coffee cup or the remote without a couple quick taps.

Luckily for me, the kind folks at Media1 picked up on my intrigue for these musical tables, and for my 10th anniversary this last January, they gave me a gift certificate for one of my very own. I got to work with Tor Clausen on the types of drums and size of the table as well as the finishes. A few weeks later, I’m the proud owner of my very own musical table.

Now I don’t expect that suddenly I am going to become an amazing percussionist, but I do expect, that I will get better. If I had a drum in my music room, I would probably never play it; instead I would choose to pick up my favorite guitar or mandolin, but the coffee table in my living room? How can I not walk by and try a little beat? It’s integrated into my everyday life and it has a presence that will be hard to ignore.

All of this got me thinking, can we create better leaders by making sure that the opportunity to be a better leader is ever-present? How can we make professional development as irresistible as playable furniture?

Harrison Plays his Rumba Table

HR Analytics: Find the Why

WhyRecently I’ve come across two studies that have been rather critical of the current state of HR Analytics. A recent study by LFR Inc. Human Resources Research Report ( reports only 13% cited Big Data and Talent Analytics as important. While a Bersin By Deliotte study ( found: “86 percent of companies say they have no analytics capabilities in the HR function. Moreover, 67 percent rate themselves as ‘weak’ at using HR data to predict workforce performance and improvement.”

This got me thinking, If Big Data is so important to HR, why aren’t they paying attention?
The operative word here is “why”.

Turns out, I could think of lots of barriers without too much trouble:
• Lack of expectation
• Low skill on analytical practices
• No capacity for analysis
• Immature tools sets with unreliable data
• Lack of process around analytics
• No incentive or motivation
Think about which if any of these things are true in your organization, and I would guess you’ll find at least two that resonate.

Truth is we don’t — and can’t – “do analytics” just because it’s trendy; we have to find business reasons that make sense. With very rare exception, being good at analytics is not a product or service that our company sells; it’s not our core competency. Yet, it’s hard to deny that analytics are critical to determining the effectiveness of the things we work to improve.

“What gets measured, gets done” is backwards. It’s consequence driven. In an accountable, incentivized- culture, Measurement is what tells us the effect of our efforts. The “why” in what we measure has to be integrated into the initiative and has to align with strategic business goals.

According to the annual CEO Challenge study by The Conference Board (, the #2 concern of CEOs in the US is Human Capital, with the following initiatives being top priority:
1. Raise employee engagement
2. Provide employee training and development
3. Enhance effectiveness of the senior management team
4. Improve performance management processes and accountability
5. Increase efforts to retain critical talent

Nowhere on that list is “Get better at Big Data and HR.” Yet the need for analytics is clearly present and critical to the success of each of the initiatives. Regardless of the strategy to move the bar on any of these initiatives, you’re throwing money into a black hole if you can’t find a meaningful way of measuring results.

The classic argument against integrated analytics is that sometimes you don’t need the number to tell you to do the right thing. That’s honestly a legitimate truth in a lot of cases. However, let’s imagine for a moment, that you’ve made great strides on an initiative and made real progress. The next thing to do may not be so obvious, and not having any measurements from the past is going to hurt your ability to make good decisions moving forward. It may not be today, but eventually having good analytics is going to be important.

Low analytics maturity in HR may be an indicator that we are currently focusing on initiatives that have more obvious immediate benefits, but that will quickly change. It behooves all of us to find some legitimate “why” to start improving our analytics practices. The tools may get better over time, but the discipline is never going to get any easier than it is today.

Measure Twice, Cut Once the SlideShare

I wrote a blog a little while back that was a crossover between my one of my personal hobbies, guitar building, and my profession, business consulting around people. When I initially wrote the blog, I had quite a few pictures and it didn’t translate into the blog format very well. With this version, I have all the pictures and a fraction of the words. Let me know which you prefer. The blog can be found here.

58 Quotes, Facts, Benchmarks, and Best Practices on People and Analytics

For the last 18 months, the consulting team at Media 1 has read tens of thousands of pages of research, presentations, and white papers on analytics as it relates to people and performance. When we came across especially interesting content, we added it to a master list of resources. The following 58 Quotes, Facts, Benchmarks, and Best Practices on People and Analytics where curated from that list in the hopes that people will use them in support of creating great places to work.

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